If you have ever read any of Jamy Ian Swiss’s book reviews, then you will appreciate why I approach this current endeavour with some degree of trepidation. On the other hand, were I to tell you that this is the first magic book I have read which has led me to re-evaluate my life (though that I read it shortly after my 40th birthday may also be relevant) then you will understand why I feel compelled to write this review, in the vain attempt to bring this stimulating work to a wider audience.
We should say at the start that if you are the sort of magician who believes the only value in any magic purchase is in ‘learning some more tricks’ then you should probably stop reading now and certainly shouldn’t buy the book. On the other hand, if you are a magician who loves their art and who wants to think more deeply, develop as a performer, and revel in our shared magical history, then this is essential reading.
Preserving Mystery is the third in a trio of books which Vanishing Magic have just re-published in a beautiful matching edition. Indeed if you buy the complete set you will get a fourth volume unavailable elsewhere. It is beautifully printed to Vanishing Magic’s usual high standards. An understated hard-back volume, appropriately illustrated and typeset in a font which is easy on the eye. Many of the essays have been published before elsewhere but since many of us may not have had access to those magazines this is a welcome addition to the library.
The title essay, which comes last in the book, explores that tension which anyone who loves magic is well familiar with. We start off in magic transported and captivated by the mystery of it all – but as we grow in knowledge and experience it becomes harder to achieve those moments of mystery. Swiss explores this tension and some of its complications with insight and understanding.
The book falls into three sections. I will try to give a flavour of each.
This section contains some of the most ‘theoretical’ essays and explores, amongst other things, the relationship between a hack magician (and potential plagiarist) and a true creative artist, the way we (consciously or not) treat our audience, the difference between mentalism and mental magic, and even the portrayal of magicians in fiction and what we are to learn from that.
Each essay is insightful and clearly argued. I, personally, really enjoy his erudite style and his unashamed convictions. He is prepared to nail his colours to the mast as to what he likes and what he doesn’t – and the unavoidable impression is of a man who dearly loves his art and longs for others to think more deeply and carefully about it.
As its name suggests, this section takes the form of historical and biographical sketches. He covers Al Flosso (1895-1976), Imam Hossani (1949-2012), Michael Skinner (1941-1998), Herb Zarrow (1925-2008) and Earl Johnson (1923-2009). Although I knew of almost all of these, each essay was a wonderfully personal and evocative sortie into their lives. I love reading about the history of magic and found that each chapter transported me in a delightful way to another world. Swiss not only describes the men, but draws lessons from their lives including (in the case of Michael Skinner) some very specific finesses on particular moves.
A Magician Prepares
This third section is a little more wide-ranging. As an avid reader and collector of magic books, I loved the first essay which was primarily a lament for the personal introduction of many classic magic books. I share some of Swiss’ dislike of the magic video/dvd/download as a way of learning magic, though am slightly more optimistic than him about the future of magic publishing in the light of a number of very fine (to my mind) books which have been published in recent years.
Suiting Repertoire was an argument for having a larger repertoire of effects and moves than you need for your ‘regular’ performing set on the basis that you may otherwise miss out on creating some memorable one-off moments of magic. The illustrations from his own life of successful examples of this felt like the real reason he wanted to write the chapter – but enjoyed the tales and found my own laziness sorely challenged by the approach!
A chapter is devoted to exploring the subtlety of that most-abused sleight, the French Drop. This is followed by a stimulating exploration of how to choose the method (sleight of hand or ‘gaff’) when you are devising or learning a routine. I wish that more of us devoted this level of thinking to our magical performances – and the repeated insight that method affects effect is vital to remember. Footonote 51 was one of favourite in the book (closely followed by 34 in the chapter on the French Drop) – but you will have to read the book yourself to discover why they made me laugh out loud.
The Swiss Sleight Study System takes up most of the rest of this section – and is essentially a plea for magicians to take their study of sleight of hand seriously and an index of references for the most standard card magic sleights (and a much briefer equivalent for coin magic). If you are serious about developing your sleight of hand then this would benefit further study.
I had a wonderful few evenings reading this excellent book and it gets my highest recommendation for anyone who loves magic and wants to be encouraged to think carefully about it. And in case you’re wondering, it was a particular challenge about one’s motivation to practise which made me ask (again) some fundamental questions about priorities in life.
Preserving Mystery is available from the Merchant of Magic for £27.50 (at the time of writing).
Review copy kindly provided by Murphys Magic to whom dealer enquiries should be directed.
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